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Implications of Grounding the Boeing 737 MAX for Sino-US relations

Apr 08 , 2019
  • Li Zheng

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Recently, two aircraft of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 model crashed in less than five months, killing nearly 350 people. Flight data shows that there is an obvious similarity between the two accidents. Some analysts believe that the accidents may be related to defects in the software system of this Boeing model. Shortly after the Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10, many countries including China announced the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX 8, with the US eventually joining.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China suspended the issuance of its Airworthiness Certificate for the Boeing 737 MAX 8 on March 21, which means that the aircraft cannot enter the Chinese market until the worries are fully resolved.

The Chinese aviation administration has made passenger safety a priority principle. This practice has been supported by some countries but has also raised questions from the US. Some in the American media believe that China’s decision to suspend flights by the Boeing 737 MAX 8 is too hasty, while suggesting that suspending access for Boeing planes may be a negotiating strategy. These speculations have added difficulties to Sino-US trade negotiations and may also have a negative impact on overall Sino-US relations.

The incident involved some new areas of Sino-US relations and provided a chance for reflection.

First, the Boeing grounding incident reflects the different standards of aviation safety between China and the US. China has a relatively low tolerance for product safety issues involving personal safety. Once there are sufficient grounds to conclude that a product is seriously flawed, Chinese regulators often take immediate action to avoid a real disaster caused by hidden dangers. Climate and operational errors are not enough to explain the crash of two passenger aircraft of the same type in a short period of time, and design defects are more likely.

This situation has also appeared before. In the 2009 Air France 447 crash, the pitot tube design flaw of the A330 was the main cause of the accident. It is speculated that the Boeing 737 MAX may also have design flaws in the software system and induction system, which may cause errors for the pilot and the aircraft’s automatic piloting system.

The US has greater tolerance, with US regulators being reluctant to make decisions too early before finalizing their findings on potential design flaws. The announcement of the grounding decision came from the direct command of President Trump. Even so, Trump’s decision sparked dissenting voices from US commentators.

The differences between Chinese and US standards are prone to misinterpretation. The US fails to understand that China's high sensitivity and quick action is undertaken to avoid public panic about aviation safety. Meanwhile some Chinese believe that the United States’ slow response is done to shelter domestic enterprises, rather than taking a professional approach. These misunderstandings will affect the two countries as they deal with the fallout from the incident.

Second, the incident reflects the complex security issues brought about by the global industrial chain. Although Boeing is a US company, its production chain is spread all over the world. Boeing has a large amount of equipment and software outsourced to third parties. Some critics said that the software system, with its potential safety hazards, might be produced by third parties — and Boeing did not fully grasp the resulting risks.

Globalization is an important driving force for the development of the global economy, but it also makes product safety issues more complicated. The security risks in the global industrial chain cannot be judged simply by country, value, or the economic standards of the Western market. This kind of security risk exists widely and needs to be solved through international cooperation and professional technical standards. The United States has blocked the Chinese company Huawei access to the US market based on the hidden dangers of industrial chain security. However, similar problems exist in American companies, and have even had catastrophic consequences.

Finally, the incident reflects the security risks posed by automation and artificial intelligence. US President Trump said the aircraft is becoming more complex, and the aircraft no longer needs pilots but MIT computer experts. The Boeing 737 MAX is one of the most advanced large passenger aircraft in the world today. Its technological advancement is mainly reflected in advanced control and software systems. Aircraft developers want to use more automation and artificial intelligence to make airplanes safer and more reliable. But in fact, this desire may end up being counterproductive.

In the new round of technological revolution, the main trend in manufacturing is to introduce artificial intelligence into products. However, this process has also given more decision-making power to the black box of artificial intelligence. In the event of an accident, it is difficult for investigators to find the real cause and make necessary fixes. This is a common problem faced by China and the US.

In the Sino-US trade negotiations, the two countries have focused on solving traditional issues such as intellectual property rights. But at the same time, the two countries also need to open up novel cooperation mechanisms to solve these new problems. The US should conduct a systematic, comprehensive and transparent investigation of Boeing’s problems and rebuild the trust that underlies the words “Made in USA.”

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